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preview imageINTO THE WOODS
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Vancouver East Cultural Centre
Mar. 7-29
604-280-3311 or

Watching Into the Woods the same week Fantasy Gardens was back in the news, I couldn’t help thinking of that exclamation patented by Bill Vanderzalm: Fa-a-antastic! Almost everything about this Stephen Sondheim musical take on Grimm’s fairy tales is delightful. But what’s really mind-boggling is producer / director Peter Jorgensen’s chutzpah in putting together this huge independent production (16 professional actors, 8 musicians), cramming it into the confines of the Cultch, and delivering such a slick, tight, exhilarating show.

Writer James Lapine has interwoven the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Rapunzel with a wonderfully comic, ironic sensibility, generated partly by a charming narrator (Simon Webb), but mostly through Sondheim’s matter-of-factly witty lyrics.

When Red Riding Hood (Ingrid Nilson) gathers bread rolls to take to her grandmother (Lisa Waines), she sings to the baker (Robert Clarke) and his wife (Katey Wright), “I sort of hate to ask it, / But do you have a basket?”  Asked about the ball, Cinderella (the superb Jennifer Toulmin) sings, “There was too much food, / I’m afraid I was rude, / Now I’m being pursued.”

You can hardly keep up with the intricate internal rhymes and smart bons mots. “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” admits Cinderella’s vain Prince (Ryan Reid). Jonathan Winsby’s lip-licking big bad wolf rhymes “palate” and “carnality.”

The pleasures of this show are many.  Musical director Scott Knight’s orchestra gives a nice full sound to one of Sondheim’s most tuneful scores.  Marti Wright’s cardboard cutout forest set is striking, and the two-dimensional cardboard cow on wheels is a hoot. In fact every design element is noteworthy: Barbara Clayden’s vivid costumes and great wigs, Alan Brodie’s moody lighting, Melody Anderson’s grotesque masks, and Jim Preston’s impressive sound effects.

Director Jorgensen takes some of the performances right to the edge of cheesy but never crosses the line.  And it’s nothing short of miraculous that an independent production this size can boast such consistently strong comic performances and excellent singing voices.

In addition to those I’ve mentioned, David Hurwitz and Patti Allan are near-perfect as sweet Jack and his shrewish mother, Megan Morrison sings Rapunzel with a lovely soprano, and Zena Driver, Melissa Young and David Dimapilis are satisfyingly nasty as Cinderella’s step-sisters and the Steward.  Although the ensemble rules, Linda Quibell stands out for both her acting and singing as the Witch, along with Toulmin’s Cinderella.

The play’s first act is so glorious that 90 minutes feels short. The second act attempts less successfully to take the fairy tales’ happily-after-after into the darker woods of disappointment and death.  Still, this is one of the best shows of the year so far.

Jerry Wasserman